Chelsea 2020/21 Revisited: January 2021

Lampard sacked by Chelsea
Frank Lampard sacked by Chelsea. Credit | Getty Images

Game 26/60: Chelsea vs Manchester City

A New Year and a fresh start was what many were hoping for at Chelsea, though the task wouldn’t be easy with Manchester City the opponents at Stamford Bridge. Having said that, Pep Guardiola’s side weren’t in quite the exceptional form that led them to winning the title at the end of the season, though this very game has been pinpointed as the one which turned the eventual Champions’ season around. For virtually the whole 90 minutes, Manchester City dominated the Blues and showed their world class talent in every area of the pitch.

A sleek turn and finish from Ilkay Gundogan put them one ahead before 20 minutes and just three minutes later the young talent Phil Foden oozed class as he deftly clipped Kevin De Bruyne’s cross over Edouard Mendy, firmly putting the sky blues in control. It wasn’t so much as poor defending, though that certainly did play a part, but more the simply irresistible football which was laid out in front of the home side that led to such a dominant display, even if the scoreline suggests it was slightly less under their control. It would be this game that formed part of the Manchester side’s 28 game unbeaten run between December and March that cemented their place at the top of the table, though the story between the Citizens and the Blues certainly wasn’t over yet.

Returning to the game, the former Chelsea man De Bruyne got a goal courtesy of a break in which Raheem Sterling seemed to take an age to shoot and when he did it fired back off the post into the path of the Belgian who comfortably slotted home the third, all in the first half. In the end, the hard work was only truly needed for the first 45 minutes and the second saw little action, apart from a minor upset to City in that they lost their clean sheet when Callum Hudson-Odoi slid onto a Kai Havertz cross and bundled home a consolation goal. As it was already injury time, it meant absolutely nothing bar a slight improvement in goal difference but, in all honesty, this was proof live in the flesh of the difference in quality between Lampard’s young (and now very expensive) side, and those who compete right at the very top.

Game 26/60: Chelsea 1-3 Manchester City

Game 27/60: Chelsea vs Morecambe

A week later there was a welcome distraction in the form of a new competition, one that Chelsea have an illustrious history with – the FA Cup. A third round home tie against Morecambe was exactly what the doctor ordered, as well as a bonus treatment on top, as it allowed the Blues to showcase their attacking ability without much fear of conceding, as well as by getting a win under their belts for the first time in almost three weeks. There was one nervy moment early on when a Morecambe cross went wayward and was very close to catching out Kepa who grasped onto the ball moments before it crossed the line and looked the most relieved man in the stadium when he stood up with it in his hands.

Apart from that one chance, the away side seldom threatened the Spanish backup keeper, though there can’t be too many critics for the League Two side in how they played. It ended up being Mason Mount who opened the scoring, slotting a rocket into the bottom left, though admittedly the goalkeeping was a slight assist for the midfielder. Chelsea grabbed another just before the break when three summer signings combined: Hakim Ziyech floated a ball into the box which Havertz headed down to his compatriot Timo Werner and from two yards out he couldn’t miss, doubling the Blues’ advantage.

A third was added when Ziyech again opened up the defence and Hudson-Odoi, after a slightly wayward first touch, managed to put the ball in the back of the net. To round things off, Havertz himself got a goal after a strong performance, jumping above the Shrimps’ centre backs to nod in Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross. It was by no means a ‘big win’ in terms of the context and the opposition taken into account, but it provided some temporary relief from the troubles in the league that had been cursing the team recently.

Game 27/60: Chelsea 4-0 Morecambe

Game 28/60: Fulham vs Chelsea

After the brief change in competition, it was back to the Premier League for Lampard and his side, this time against rivals so close it takes less than 10 minutes to walk from one ground to another. Fulham had made another return to the top division in England but were languishing near the relegation zone and would eventually be confined to another season back in the Championship. Still, at the time there remained reasonable hopes of escaping the dreaded drop and pulling off an escape with Scott Parker at the helm. Parker himself looked friendly enough pre match with his managerial counterpart, smiling and joking (all socially distanced of course, we had just moved into another lockdown at this point).

The difficulty that the Blues found with breaking down the Cottagers was a telling sign of just how desperate things were becoming throughout the team. Had Antonee Robinson not been sent off moments before the referee blew for half time, it would not have been at all surprising for the away side if they had left without all three points. They might even have been lucky to do that in fact as Azpilicueta very nearly gifted Ivan Cavaleiro a goal thanks to a wayward pass back to Mendy. In the end, as often seemed to be the case during this past season, it took a moment of quality from Mason Mount to break the deadlock.

With time seeming to be starting to run out as the clock neared 80 minutes, a hopeful Chiwell cross was palmed away by Areola in goal, straight into the path of the young English midfielder. He struck a half volley with venom and the shot nestled in the net before any defender or goalkeeper could even move. Timo Werner had as good an opportunity as he could’ve hoped for to end his ongoing goal drought with a one on one against the Fulham keeper but he sent his shot wide, much to the dismay of both himself and those on the touchline.

Luckily for him, Chelsea weren’t left rueing what might have been with the missed chance and left Craven Cottage with a 1-0 win and a crucial three points which sent them up to … ninth. Things needed to rapidly turn around, and with a tough away game against Leicester to come, it was an absolute must win, or else the consequences were stark.

Game 28/60: Fulham 0-1 Chelsea
Mount rescues Lampard's blushes. Credit | Getty Images
Mount rescues Lampard’s blushes. Credit | Getty Images

Game 29/60: Leicester City vs Chelsea

Of all the places for a managerial career to fall apart, a Tuesday night in Leicester does feel as though it is one of the most appropriate places. Now, I should preface this with the important distinction that this was not the final game Frank Lampard took part in as Chelsea head coach. However, given the result on the night, as well as the performance which went hand in hand with it, it may as well have been, given it evidently became the final nail in the coffin for the young manager. Despite picking some semblance of form in the previous two games, the defence still looked untenable in its proneness to errors and a team such as Leicester who were flying high in the league were bound to expose this.

Regardless, hope was still present among ranks that Lampard was capable of turning the form around and going into the second half of the season with the team in good stead for a top four run. All of these expectations, while difficult, were possible to reach given the quantity of games left and certainly would be given a big boost with a victory over rivals for said places in Brendan Rodgers’ side. You may have noticed I have delayed talking about the events of the actual game itself for some time – that’s no accident. As a fan, this was a tough game to watch for two reasons: first, it was a terrible performance and that is never something you want to see from your team, especially when it is such an important game. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for many, it was virtually beyond doubt by the end of the 90 minutes that the tenure of the manager was not set to continue for any longer than a few more days.

I will talk further about Lampard and his legacy but, knowing that this was the game that would make or break his Chelsea future, seeing the self-destruction just made the pain even worse. That self-destruction happened early on, with Wilfried N’didi firing a shot from just outside the box onto the inside of the post leaving Mendy with no chance, though the defending from the preceding corner deserved more than a few questions to be asked of it. Leicester were then, quite simply, far and away the better side. They looked more slick, more able and more determined than their opposition in all areas of the pitch. There was a brief glimmer of hope when Christian Pulisic was brought down and a penalty was initially given but VAR correctly showed the foul being outside the box and the resulting free kick led to nothing.

The only surprising thing about the second goal for the Foxes was that it took so long to come, with there only being four minutes left of the first half when James Maddison had all the time in the world to sweep a volley past Mendy as the Chelsea defenders look bemused and bewildered as to how every single one of them had lost each one of their men.

Really, Leicester will be disappointed that they didn’t get more goals from the game after a multitude of chances were missed but in a way the scoreline was irrelevant by that point – such a tepid display from any team would cause issues to be raised. Add to that the fact there was £200 million worth of summer signings in the mix and the team had a very recent history of winning the very league they were now faltering in and you had the perfect recipe for the end of a managerial reign at Chelsea Football Club.

Game 29/60: Leicester City 2-0 Chelsea

Game 30/60: Chelsea vs Luton Town

Many had expected to wake up the following morning to news of the departure of Frank Lampard, although he still had vocal backers among the fan base, and that section would’ve been pleased to see him in the dugout for a fourth round FA Cup game against Luton. When revisiting this season, this game strikes out at me as particularly poignant, given the fact it can be assumed most, including Frank himself, knew this was to be his final game and the way he went out serves as one of the greatest reminders of the short but sweet legacy he built at Stamford Bridge.

If you were to ask any fan what Lampard brought to the club as head coach in one word there would be a very common answer: youth. Critics will argue that the enforced transfer ban led to a need to look elsewhere but there is little doubt in my mind that the player who had seen the talent at Cobham as a player go unused wanted to take advantage of the players at his disposal and, though simple to do, took guts given the well known desire for immediate success at the club.

Such a desire ended up being his downfall and after the final game of the season it could be said that this policy is fully justified, given the satisfaction that the campaign ended with. Perhaps that’s true but, as so many of the fanbase were blindsided with the idea that Super Frank would be given time for a long term project, his dismissal was tough to take, even though it wasn’t out of the pattern of previous appointments. Returning to his final game, he let his starboy prodigy in Mason Mount lead his boyhood club out of the tunnel as captain, something I am certain was a deliberate act to fulfil a promise he had made the youngster a long time before. Not only was the midfielder captain, there were also starts for Reece James and Tammy Abraham, who ended up having the most defining impact on Frank’s final outing.

Chelsea's English midfielder Mason Mount runs with the ball during the English FA Cup fourth round football match between Chelsea and Luton Town at Stamford Bridge in London on January 24, 2021. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. /  (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Chelsea’s English midfielder Mason Mount runs with the ball during the English FA Cup fourth round football match between Chelsea and Luton Town at Stamford Bridge in London on January 24, 2021. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The striker scored a hat trick to send the Blues through to the next round – the first a pinpoint placement into the bottom left, the second a header which looped over the keeper and to complete the set there was, quite fittingly, a goal made entirely in Cobham. There could be no better way to mark the end of a club legend’s brief and bittersweet time as manager than a goal involving Mason Mount, Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham, which was exactly how the final goal of Lampard’s tenure played out. A Luton goal in the first half ended up being insignificant and the fact is, a win to see Frank out was much needed to end on more of a high than the result in the Midlands. 

Less than 24 hours later, the news came that his time was up, to many people’s surprise given the result the day before, but looking back now is easier than at the time when reflection seemed impossible and emotions were running high. Lampard’s incumbency was, unfortunately, doomed to fail. His inexperience was masked by the transfer ban and, while it gave incredible opportunities to those mentioned before, the drop in expectations meant that when they returned in his second season, they would come as a shock to everyone. That’s not to say he won’t be a successful manager, or that his time at the club was meaningless however. In fact, it was quite the opposite – Frank Lampard took a job that nobody else wanted and, against all the odds, delivered on the prerequisites he was given in his first season in charge.

Regardless of events which went on to transpire, that in itself deserves recognition. And, while results themselves may have slipped too much for him to remain in charge, Super Frank will always have a home at Stamford Bridge, irrelevant of how his managerial spell might’ve ended. There were highs, there were lows, there were friends, there were foes. It was said at the time and I’ll say it again: thanks for everything, Frank.

Game 30/60: Chelsea 3-1 Luton Town

Game 31/60: Chelsea vs Wolves

Such extreme events in such a short space of time left just 24 hours for the new manager to take the reins before their first fixture against Wolves. Multiple names were mentioned at first but in the end there emerged only one frontrunner. Thomas Tuchel, the former PSG and Dortmund manager, was to be the next Chelsea head coach and with a reputation for instant impacts, there was expectation for results very quickly. That said, the German can be given some slack for his inaugural fixture considering the almost impossible turnaround time between meeting his squad for the very first time and being on the touchline at the Bridge for a game.

Taking all those factors into account, the performance was relatively positive, despite the game ending 0-0, as there was far greater defensive resilience shown within Tuchel’s first 90 minutes than in more than 500 minutes before his arrival. Attacking wise there wasn’t so much threat and that may be partly put down due to Mason Mount being left on the bench, something that seems unthinkable now, but as the German coach sought to prioritise experience over youth to ensure at least a point, his exclusion can be excused. A great chance fell to Ben Chilwell who skied his effort over the bar, Kovacic sent an effort just wide and Hudson-Odoi saw his effort saved but there were no clear cut opportunities created by either side in the end and both seemed content enough with a point each, especially given the turmoil that had been arisen in recent days.

The one moment which did catch Chelsea fan’s eyes was the post match press conference though, when Thomas Tuchel claimed that he would ‘build a team that nobody wants to play against’. It was a bold statement considering he had been in charge for such a short amount of time but little did people watching from home now he would fulfill that promise just a few months later… 

Game 31/60: Chelsea 0-0 Wolves
Tuchel training with Chelsea
Tuchel training with Chelsea. Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Game 32/60: Chelsea vs Burnley

Tuchel’s second game was a much fairer way to assess his ability to rejuvenate the squad from the pits of self despair and wallowing in their own unhappiness surrounding the squad’s performance. He had been at the helm for under a week still but had been able to take charge of a few training sessions and, according to reports, he had developed tactics on the flight over to the country when he first arrived. On Sunday afternoon, he was once again at the Bridge for a fixture against Burnley who, like in most of their top flight campaigns, were not fighting against relegation per say but also not pushing for a top half finish. Sean Dyche’s team were infamous for their tough, defensive style so for a new manager it would be difficult to find ways to break them down without much prior experience.

Tuchel took that playbook and ripped it up though as he watched his side absolutely dominate the opposition for the entire game, limiting them to just one shot which wasn’t on target. Mendy then had very little to do during the 90 minutes, but he was able to sit back and enjoy the Blues work smartly to bypass the Burnley back line. The first good chance fell the way of Marcos Alonso who had found his way back into the side after a four month hiatus and his lack of match experience showed as he saw his header go wide. Werner had a chance right in front of goal but couldn’t sort his feet out, something that was becoming increasingly infuriating. 5 minutes before half time Tuchel saw his side score the first goal under his leadership and it was a good one at that.

Jorginho played Mount through the middle who charged up the pitch before himself giving the ball to Hudson-Odoi who then had the exceptional awareness to flick a pass off to his right where Azplicueta was charging into the box to fire a rocket into the roof of the net. A true captain’s welcome some would say and in the second half the onslaught didn’t subside from the home side. Hudson-Odoi had an excellent game and he was unlucky not to get a goal, seeing one of his efforts fly off the post following some fancy footwork. The second goal which dispelled any hopes of snatching a point for Burnley finally came in the 84th minute but it was worth the wait. Pulisic brought the ball up past two defenders where Alonso chested it, controlled it with his thigh before swivelling 180 degrees and volleying an absolute thunderbolt past Nick Pope.

It was ironic of course that the man who hadn’t played in so long under Lampard now already appeared to be prospering with the new head coach, but the goalscorers were largely irrelevant in the fact the more important story was that Tuchel had his first win and the Blues were still yet to concede a goal – a promising sign of things to come.

Game 32/60: Chelsea 2-0 Burnley
Month Statistics:
Games Played: 7
Games Won: 4
Games Drawn: 1
Games Lost: 2

Month in three words: Beginnings And Ends.

Written by Noah Robson (@Noahr24_)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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